The Secret Knowledge of Water

Hoodoo Gap, Chiricahua National Monument, Arizona by Stu Jenks

Last week's posts, from Tuesday onward, were all connected to the theme of water in one way or another: Mr. Punch by the seaside; a riverside walk with Ursula Le Guin; the folklore of wells and springs; and the lush green riverbank of Wind in the Willows. We started this week with water music, and I'd like to carry on by recommending some favourite books containing water in its various forms -- beginning with one from the deserts of the American south-west, where water is scarce, precious, and sacred.

The Secret Knowledge of Water by Craig Child was one of handful of books that sat permanently on my desk when I lived in Arizona: books that served as talismans of all that I loved best about life in the Sonoran desert, and that I would carry with me when I crossed the sea to the wet, green hills of Dartmoor. Child's book begins in the vast wilderness of the Cabeza Prieta on the Arizona-Mexico border -- a place I also had the great good fortune to spend time in over the years -- and then moves through a wide variety of desert terrains in northern and southern Arizona, Mexico, and Utah. What I love about the book is not only the author's deep knowledge of and passion for the land, but the way he writes about it in prose that is as poetic as it is instructive. For example, Childs begins his text with this arresting passage:

Shiprock at Sunset,  Navajo Reservation by Stu Jenks"My mother was born beside a spring in the high desert, just north of where West Texas and Mexico meet along the River Grande. Born three months premature, she was kept alive in an incubator heated with household lightbulbs. And eyedropper was used for feeding. The water from the spring bathed her and filled her body, tightening each of her cells. It filled the hollow of her bones. Years later, as the water passed from mother to child like fine hair or blue eyes, I grew up thinking that water and the desert were the same.

"Beyond the spring grew piñon and juniper trees, their wood grossly twisted from years of drought, while here, where my mother was born, cress and moss grew from the spring. A weeping willow, imported from an unfamiliar place, dusted the surface with seeds. I traveled there once, walking up and pushing away the downy willow seeds with the edge of my hand. I dipped two film canisters below the surface. I capped these, and walked back to my truck, and drove away before a stranger could appear from a nearby house to run me off the property.

"I figured the water might come in handy someday. If my mother ever grew ill and her death were near, I would bring this water to her. The spring had kept many people alive before her. It was an essential stopover for Spanish explorers in the 17th and 18th centuries and for whomever traveled the desert for the previous millennia. I would slip its water between her lips, tilting her head up with my palms. Her body might recognize it, the way salmon make sudden turns to follow obscure creeks, the way dragonflies work back to the one water hole held between desert mesas.

"An early memory of the low Sonoran Desert where I was born is of my mother walking me out on a trail. I remember three things, each a snapshot without motion or sound. The first is lush, green cottonwood trees billowing like clouds against the stark backdrop of cliffs and boulders. The second is tadpoles worrying the mud in a water hole just about dry. Each tadpole, like the eye of a raven, waited black and moist against the sun. The third is water streaming over carved rock into a pool clear as window glass. These three images are what defined the desert for me. At an early age it was obvious that water was the element of consequence, the root of everything."

Seven Saguaros, Arizona by Stu Jenks

Hoop Dancing With Ghosts, Coalmine Canyon, Navajo:Hopi Joint Use Area, Arizona by Stu Jenks

Later in the book, Childs describes the miracle of water in a dry terrain like this:

"Parched land wrinkles to the horizon and in one place, a rock outcrop, a seep emits a drop every minute, a light tap on the rocks below. The drop is sacred. Doled in such apothecary increments, this scarce water is almost deafening, surrounded by total silence, by hot sand fine as confectioners' sugar. It is a single word, a mantra.

"In places it gathers speed, finding pathways, turning from seeps to springs to streams to rivers. To be near such moving water in the desert is like being a vacant concert hall with a solo cellist, like standing on tundra with a grizzly bear. You must listen. You must make eye contact. The water cannot be resisted. Drops become elaborate cadence. The flow becomes song. It burbles from the ground, tumbling down hallways of isolated canyons. Life bends into preposterous shapes to fit inside, plying the narrow thread between drought and flood. Orders are given: you must live a certain way, and do it swiftly, elegantly, because this is a desert, this water is only here, and then a hundred miles of nothing.

Molino Falls, Arizona by Stu Jenks"In the Kama Sutra, erotic sounds are said to come in seven categories: the Himkāra, a light, nasal sound; the Stanita, described as a "roll of thunder"; the hissing Kūjita; the weeping Rudita; the Sūtkrita, which is a gentle sigh; the painful cry of Dutkrita; and finally the Phutkrita, a violent burst of breath. I have heard all of these in water, and then a hundred others, none of which have been offered titles besides plunk, plash, swish, or splash. I have heard the Phutkrita in the snapping of a tree limb during the sudden upwelling of a flood, and the Sūtkrita sigh as that same water slowly spun itself into a downstream eddy. Horse trainers have so many names for horse breeds and colors, and Arctic dwellers have entire dialects for the nature of snow, yet few names have been given specifically to the sound of water. It may be that water is too commonplace. Since it must pass your lips every day, and you wash your hands with it as a habit, it might seem too pedestrian for study. If this is true, if water is so prosaic, come to the desert and listen to moving water. I have been held for days in a single place not because I needed the water, but because I had to listen."

This is a writer after my own heart. I, too, have sat beside water in the desert, unable to tear myself away. Needing to listen. To hear its stories. Like my life depended on it. 

Navajo Horseman by Stu Jenks

The art today is by my friend Stu Jenks, a Virginia-born photographer who has spent many years in southern Arizona. We've known each other for a long time now, ever since we had neighbouring studio spaces in the old Toole Shed art building in downtown Tucson; and to my mind, there's no one who captures the elusive magic of the desert better.

To learn more about his work, please visit Stu's Fezziwig Press and blog Fezziwig Press.  You'll also find it here in previous posts, including The Borders of Language and Days of the Dead.

Catalina State Park, Arizona by Stu Jenks

Words: The passages above are from The Secret Knowledge of Water: Discovering the Essence of the American Desert by Craig Childs (Little, Brown & Co, 2000); all rights reserved by the author.

Pictures: The photographs above are by Stu Jenks; all rights reserved by the artist. Titles can be found in the picture caption. (Run your cursor over the images to see them.)


Recommended reading: A Still Life

Ponies on the Commons

Ponies 2

Following last week's post on creative inspiration born out of hard experience, I'd like to recommend a book I've recently read and loved: A Still Life by British author Josie George. In this beautiful, painful, deftly-crafted memoir, George brings us into the center of a writing life honed by illness and disability: circumscribed by physical limitations, yes, but rich in observation, reflection, and depth of feeling, alchemized into the making of art.

She begins the book like this, writing from her bed in the small house where she's lived for fifteen years:

A Sill Life by Josie George"Houses like mine exist all in a row along every street of my industrial West Midlands neighbourhood. They push themselves right up against the narrow pavement, rusty weeds marking the join. It's a land of scattered wheelie bins, patched grass, broken glass, dog shit and prowling cats. Cars ride the corners and the yellow lines because there is never anywhere to park. The neighbours shout behind closed doors and smile at you on the street, and for half the year the old people drag plastic garden chairs to sit outside their front doors and smoke in the sunshine, their heads tipped back to the sky. We're good to each other. We're so trodden together that we have to be. There is peace and reassurance in that and I like living here.

"I share the house with my nine-year-old son and no one else. Our days follow a repetitive, quiet rhythm. I take him to school, him dutifully shifting each bin that blocks our path so I can squeeze by on my mobility scooter. We make up phrases beginning with the letters on the car number plates we see, each as daft as we can manage. 'Bee, ee, ess!' I call. 'Bubbly...elephant...SNEEZES!' he returns. We are happy with each other. I watch him run to his friends in the playground and then I go home again.

"I write. I rest. Some days, when I'm well enough, I'll scoot to the community centre the next street over and write there for a while until I need to lie down again. I've spent the last few years trying to make a living with my words and thoughts. I don't really know what else to do. 

"I write the words, but often won't say a sound out loud until it's time to pick up my son from school again. I don't mind it. There have always been long years when I've struggled to leave my house for more than an hour or two at a time and so I am used to solitude.

"I am thirty-six years old."

Ponies 3

Ponies 4

George's text is not just about living with an illness (although her writing on the subject is gripping), it is also an unsentimental appraisal of the value of stillness, of slowing down, and of fully engaging with what we have -- right here, right now -- instead of measuring our days (and, by extension, our creative work) by what we lack.

Ponies 5

Ponies 6

Although my own experience of health disability is milder than George's, and more intermittent, I found enough similarity to be grateful for her insights on the subject; I also appreciated her raw honesty -- often expressed through a dry humour that does not disguise the courage beneath. This is, however, a book worth reading whether you've experienced chronic illness or not, for its primary theme -- how to maintain creativity, vitality, and a sense of self while dealing with life's trials -- is one we all must face, if not through illness then through age, through loss, or through some other hard life change ... such as long, world-wide pandemic, where even the able-bodied have had to learn to live with physical restrictions.

A "still life" imposed by circumstance (health, poverty, age, a cultural barrier, pandemic isolation, etc.) can be painful, frustrating, and burdensome...but also enlightening, tempering, liberating, and full of unexpected gifts. George's story encompasses all these things ... and it does so with a quiet beauty that our brash, angry, overly-fast-paced society could use a great deal more of.

Ponies 7

Ponies 8

Ponies 9

She writes:

"The miracle is, perhaps, that I am still here -- that I continue -- and that despite all that's come before, I believe my life to be good. That is the truth hidden under all of this: that I am deeply happy to be alive.

"Usually, when you are unwell, people expect one of two stories: either you get better -- you beat it -- or you get worse and die. Stories of everyday living and undramatic, sustained existence, stories that don't end up with cures or tragic climaxes but that are made up of slow, persistent continuation as you learn and change -- stories about what happens then -- they made be harder to tell, but I believe they're important too. I believe we need to tell more of them.

"That is why this year I decided to be brave. I decided I would try to find a way to tell my story, to pin it down and spread it out in front of other people -- in front of you -- so that we could look at it together. On the first of January, I made a resolution to try and write down my confused and searching past and the quiet days of my present, simply, honestly, and ignore the voice inside me that continues to tell me that it is a worthless, unimportant story to tell. I have barely told a soul of it before. It was always too much to explain. It was always too complicated and I have felt flawed and vulnerable in complexity's jumble. My life has made it easy to hide, and so I have, but I don't want to be something small and hidden any more. Mine is only one ordinary human life among countless, similar others, but it is a life that doesn't leave anything out: not grief, not pain, not delight, not failure, confusion, nor joy. It holds and embraces all of it equally, and that, I have learnt, is nothing ordinary at all."

Ponies 10

Ponies 11

Ponies 12

Words: The passage above is from A Still Life: A Memoir by Josie George (Bloomsbury, 2021). The poem in the picture captions is from Indigo by Ellen Bass (Copper Canyon Press, 2020). Both books are highly recommended. All rights reserved by the authors.

Pictures: Dartmoor ponies on the village Commons.


On borders and stories

Becuma of the White Skin by Arthur Rackham

Following on from yesterday's post, here's one more passage from Thin Places by Kerri ní Dochartaigh, a book about myth, land, language, trauma (both personal and collective) and its healing, and a deep meditation on the nature of borders, physical and internal, seen and unseen. Reflecting again on the "thin places" to be found in the north of Ireland (and elsewhere), she writes:

"My grandfather was born in the same week as the Irish border. He was a storyteller, and his most affecting tales, the ones he gave me that have shaped his life, where about place, about how we relate to it, to ourselves, and to one another. Good seanchaidhthe -- storytellers -- never really tell you anything, though. They sit by the fire in the hearth; they draw the chairs in close; they shut all the windows so the old lore doesn't fall on the wrong ears. They fill the room with a sense of ease, a sense of all being as it should be. The words, when they spill quietly out of the mouth of the one who has been entrusted with them, dance in the space, at one with the flames of the fire. It is, as always, up to those who listen to do with them what they will.

Muirne With Dogs by Arthur Rackham

"The stories he shared were fleeting, unbidden; they came and went as quickly as the bright, defiant end sparks of a fire, well on its way to going out. The stories, those glowing embers of words, were about places that were known to hide away, sometimes from all view. As if their locations are to be found in between the cracks, or floating above the grey Atlantic. Places that he mostly didn't even have names for but that he could conjure up as though they were right there in the same room. He called such places 'skull of a shae'. Now, I have come to think of the shae as 'shade', a nod to the almost ghost-like nature he saw such places as having. The places he spoke of seemed to scare him, a wee bit, or maybe it was talking about them that unsettled him. He came from a strict and hard background that allowed very little room for the voicing of much beyond the grind of being alive. I will remember, always, how he spoke of paths, particularly ones he found when walking across the border from Derry into Donegal. Paths on which friends and he had seen and heard things they were never really able to understand.

Title page for Irish Fairy Tales illustrated by Arthur Rackham"The places he spoke of were locations where people felt very different from how they normally do. Places from which people came away changed. In these places you might experience the material and spiritual worlds coming together. Blood, worry and loss might sit together under the same tree as silence, stillness and hope. He spoke, not often but with raw honesty, of places where people had found answers and grace, where they had learned to forgive, where they had made peace and room for healing. Places where a veil is lifted away and light streams in, where you see a boundary between worlds disappear right before your eyes, places where you are allowed to cross any borders and boundaries have no sway. Lines and circles, silence and stillness -- all is as it should be for that flickering gap in time. He never named the places, of course, and the first time he brought me to one -- Kinnagoe Bay -- on a soft, pink August afternoon in the late 1980s, he never spoke of any of this at all. He quietly read his magazine about pigeon racing, poured my granny's tea, and let me be."

Becuma by Arthur Rackham

If you need any more persuasion to seek out Ní Dochartaigh's remarkable book, I recommend reading her essay "Unnameable Things," found online at The Clearing (Little Toller Books).

The art today is from Irish Fairy Tales by James Stephens, illustrated by Arthur Rackham (1867-1939).

Becuma of the White Skin by Arthur Rackham

The passage quoted above is from Thin Places by Kerri ní Dochartaigh (Canongate, 2021); all rights reserved by the author. The illustrations by Arthur Rackham were first published by Macmillan in 1920, and are now in public domain.


Recommended reading: Thin Places

Wild Strawberry Unicorn by by Tamsin Abbott

One of the very best books I've read this year is Thin Places by Kerri ní Dochartaigh, a volume born from the edgelands between nature writing and memoir, but also well rooted in folklore, myth, and history.

At the core of the text is Ní Dochartaigh's account of growing up in Northern Ireland during the violent years of the Troubles, of her subsequent flight from the land of her birth, and of her eventual return. Although the story is necessarily dark, the telling is made luminous by the author's exquisite prose, shot through with flashes of bright connection to the twinned worlds of myth and nature.

Otter House, Allotment of Plenty, and Sacred Spring by Tamsin Abbott

Here's a taste of Thin Places:

"What does it mean to come from a hollowed-out place? From a place that is neck-deep in the saga of loss? ... What effect does where you come from, and what that land has been through, have on the map of your self? How deeply can a person feel the fault lines of their home running through their own veins?

"In Celtic lands it is not unusual to use the landscape as a mnemonic map. Geographical features hold a particular importance for our history, beliefs and culture -- places make up the lines of our very being. There is an understanding that we are part of and not separate from the land we inhabit. Celtic legends place the natural world at the very heart of story, maybe even inside its bones. In such stories things in the natural world can possess a spirit and presence of their own; mountains, rocks, trees, rivers -- all things of the land and the sea -- sing their own lament. Locations can be associated with a particular warrior, hero or deity. Places are tied to stories by threads that uncoil themselves back beyond known history, passed on through oral tradition, only some of which have been written down.

Young Stag Ancient Oak by by Tamsin Abbott

"Amongst these geographical features, whether manmade -- such as ancient mounds and standing stones -- or naturally created features, it is not unusual for some to be associated with the worship of pre-Christian deities. The aos sí (or aes sídhe) is an Irish term for a race that is other than human, that exists in Irish, Scottish and Manx mythologies, inhabiting an invisible world that sits in a kind of mirroring with our own. They belong to the Otherworld, Aos Sí -- a world reached through mist, hills, lakes, ponds, springs, loughs, wetland areas, caves, ancient burial sites, cairns and mounds. The island from which I come had no choice, really, than to find a name for these dancing, beating, healing places where the veil between so very many things is thin, where it has been known to lift, right before our humble, grateful eyes. 

"The folklore of almost every culture holds room for these liminal spaces -- those in-between spaces -- those unnameable places, not to be found on any map. Are these thin places spaces where we can more easily hear the land, the earth, talking to us? Or are they places in which we are able to feel more freely our own inner selves? Do such places as these therefore hold power?

Old Brock by Tamsin Abbott

"We have built up a narrative over many years -- decades, centuries? -- of 'nature' as 'other'. There is so much separation in the language we use with each other; we seek to divide humanity from its own self again and again, and this has naturally bled into how we view the land and water that we share with one another -- and with other species. What do we mean when we talk about 'nature'? About 'place'? I want to know what it all means. I need to try to understand. When we are in a place where the manmade constructs of the world seem as though they have crumbled, where time feels like it no longer exists, that feeling of separation fades away. We are reminded, in the deepest, rawest parts of our being, that we are nature. It is in us and of us. We are not superior or inferior, separate or removed; our breathing, breaking, ageing, bleeding, making and dying are the things of this earth. We are made up of the materials we see in the places around us, and we cannot undo the blood and bone that forms us.

"In thin places people often say they experience being taken 'out of themselves', or 'nearer to god'. The places I return to over and over -- both physically, and in my memory -- certainly do hold the power to make me feel light and hopeful, as though I am not quite of this world. Of much more power, though, is the way in which these places leave me feeling rooted -- as utterly and completely in the landscape as I ever feel, as much a part of it as the bones and excrement that lie beneath my feet, as the salt and silt that course through the water. For me, it is in this that the absolute and unrivalled beauty of thin places lie."

White deer by Tamsin Abbott

Thin Places is one of those books that I long to buy multiple copies of and gift to everyone I know. It's a beautiful book, and a timely one. I urge you to seek it out.

For another slant on "thin places," have a listen to Philip Marsden on Scotland Outdoors (BBC Sounds) discussing The Summer Isles, his book about the wild western coasts of Ireland and Scotland. Go here for the interview, and start at the 29:50 mark.

Hare by Tamsin Abbott

The glorious stained glass art today is by Tamsin Abbott, based in rural east Herefordshire. Tamsin received a first class degree in English literature from Stirling University (where she specialised in the medieval period); she then returned to school to study art at Gloucester College of Art and Technology, and trained in stained glass at Hereford College of Art and Design. Her work has been featured in Country Living, on Country File, and is sold in galleries and shops across the UK.

The Guardians by Tamsin Abbott"I have always been influenced (and almost obsessed) by nature," she says, "but most specifically animals, continuously drawing and painting them; for a long time I dreamed of speaking with them, and of being absorbed into their world in a way that seemed more natural to me than this human community.  I don’t think I am alone in this as I find that this animal ‘spirit’ speaks directly to others too.  However, I am also inherently inspired by the idea of myth and legend as well as fairytale and medieval romances, and the sense that our ancestors, who inhabited this land, have left an imprint on it throughout the ages.  I also love the idea of the timelessness of the cosmos that overarches everything now as it would have done since time before humanity. It is the intermeshing of all these things that contribute towards my internal universe which I hope manifests in my work.

"Behind all this inspiration the underlying sense of what I am trying to portray is how much life goes on around us constantly but outside our awareness. Be it a shrew foraging for its young in the hedgerow as we walk by, or a giant spirit dragon that soars above us in the night sky.  Conversely, I also wish to capture a sense of the magic of the everyday in my work; the sacred washing line, the reverential bonfire, the glory of a scrap of garden."

To learn more about her work, please visit Tamsin's website, or read an interview with the artist here.

Golden Fox by Tamsin Abbott

Raycomb House by Tamsin Abbott

Thin Places

The passage quoted above is from Thin Places by Kerri ní Dochartaigh (Canongate, 2021); all rights reserved by the author. The stained glass art is by Tamsin Abbott; all rights reserved by the artist.


Words and worlds

Illustration by Edward Gorey

As a coda to this week's posts on Alison Lurie (focused on her two collections of essays on children's fiction), I'd like to also recommend her final collection, Words and Worlds: From Autobiographies to Zippers (2019). The works gathered in this volume range from personal reflections to explorations of theatre, literature, and clothes (including, yes, zippers) -- plus some pieces on fairy tales and children's books that didn't appear in the previous collections.

From The Doubtful Guest by Edward Gorey

The book opens with "Nobody Asked You to Write a Novel," an account of Lurie's long, dispiriting journey to a professional writing career -- a piece so good that I wish she'd left us with a book-length memoir as well. (The title comes from her husband's curt response to her despair when publisher after publisher rejected her early work.) Later, Lurie writes about friends in her literary circle with candor, affection, and a deliciously understated humor. Here, for example, is a brief, bright portrait of Shirley Jackson from an essay on "Witches Old and New":

Words and Worlds by Alison Lurie"Over the years I have met many people who considered themselves to be witches and/or worshippers of a female deity, whom they usually referred to as The Goddess. They were of every age and social class, and of both sexes -- though, as in the witch trials of the 16th and 17th centuries, women predominated. With one exception, all claimed that they were good, or white, witches, and worked only for positive ends. They celebrated the seasons of the year and the power and glory of nature. They cast spells to find lost objects; to bring health, wealth, love, happiness, and peace of mind to themselves and their friends; and occasionally to block the evil or misguided actions of institutions such as the Internal Revenue Service, the Pentagon, and Cornell University.

"The one witch I've known who admitted to a less benign use of her magic arts was the writer Shirley Jackson, best remembered now for her brilliant and frightening short story 'The Lottery.' She did not always claim to be a witch, but she also did not deny it, sometimes giving examples. At one time, she told me, she and her husband, the critic Stanley Edgar Hyman, were extremely annoyed by his publisher, Alfred Knopf. 'Unfortunately, my powers do not extend to New York State,' she informed his secretary and several other acquaintances. 'But let him be warned. If he enters my territory, Vermont, evil will befall him.'

"The warning was passed on; but several weeks later, rashly disregarding it, Knopf took a train to Vermont to go skiing. The first day he was out on the slopes, Jackson said, he fell and broke his leg. After emergency medical treatment, he was helped onto another train and returned to his territory, Manhattan."

Illustration by Edward Gorey

Another example comes from her marvellous essay on writer and artist Edward Gorey (1925-2000), a close friend throughout their adult lives. (All of the art in this post is "Ted" Gorey's.) Lurie writes:

"The Doubtful Guest, which was dedicated to me under my married name at the time, Alison Bishop, appeared in 1957. It recalls a remark I made to Ted when John [Lurie's son] was less than two years old. I said that having a young child around all the time was like having a houseguest who never said anything and never left. This, of course, is what happens in the story. The Doubtful Guest appears out of nowhere. It is smaller than anyone else; it has a 'peculiar appearance' at first and does not understand language. As time passes, it becomes greedy and destructive: it tears pages out of books, has temper tantrums, and walks in its sleep. Yet nobody even tries to get rid of the creature. It is just always there. It sits around, or moves from room to room, and it always wears sneakers. The attitude of the other characters towards it remains one of resigned acceptance. 

From The Doubtful Guest by Edward Gorey

"Who is this Doubtful Guest? The last page of the story makes everything clear:

     It came seventeen years ago -- and to this day
     It has shown no intention of going away.

"Of course, after about seventeen years most children leave home. The Doubtful Guest is a child, and since the book was published many mothers have recognized this. My own Doubtful Guest left home at eighteen, and now is over sixty. He still comes to visit, but he always has plenty to say, and often I think he leaves too soon, so there is hope for anyone who has this kind of guest in their own home right now."

From The Doubtful Guest by Edward Gorey

Lurie, as most readers know, was a Pulitzer-Prize-winning novelist as well as a fine nonfiction writer and scholar. She died in December, 2020, at the age of 94 -- a true loss to the fields of adult and children's literature alike.

From The Doubtful Guest by Edward Gorey

From The Doubtful Guest by Edward Gorey

Illustration by Edward Gorey

The passages above are quoted from "Witches Old and New" and "Edward Gorey" by Alison Lurie, published in Words and Worlds (Delphinium Books, 2019); all rights reserved by the Lurie estate. The art above is by Edward Gorey; all rights reserved by the Gorey estate.